What is PTSD?
PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) is a mental health condition in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing a terrifying or traumatic event.
PTSD can cause various symptoms such as:
- Change in emotional reactions
- Negative changes in mood and thinking
- Flashbacks (reliving the traumatic event)
- Recurrent and unwanted memories of the traumatic event
- Intense physical reactions or distress to things that trigger the memory
Why Does This Happen?
Not all parents of preemies develop PTSD, but a significant amount do, even moms and dads who have short stays in the NICU and good outcomes.
Usually, prematurity comes as a surprise to the parents, so many have never seen or even heard of the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). As soon as the baby is admitted to the NICU, the parents endure almost continuous stress. These preemies can have good days, but they also undergo dangerously low days, too. They may battle death on a daily basis and their parents can’t do anything to help.
Some assume the worst is over once the family is allowed to leave the NICU but this is not the case. Parents report sleepless nights still spent waiting for the phone to ring, hearing their alarms in their heads, feeling powerless and alone, constant anxiety, or no feelings at all.
CASE EXAMPLE #1:
17 years ago, Kelli woke up from her C-section to only a polaroid of her 24 week old son. He was tiny, underdeveloped, eyes fused shut, with translucent skin, and covered in medical equipment and lines. She described her first visit to the NICU as a “cacophony of beeping machines, harsh lighting, space-age-looking equipment, and hospital smells, with 40 tiny, alien babies in boxes”. There was only one support group to help with her feelings of fright, but she recounts it as feeling like a memorial service.
Four months later, Kelli and her husband were finally able to bring their baby home. With their son still on a heart machine and unable to be breastfed, they were crushed under a mountain of medical bills. Kelley stated that she never realized the toll her son’s ordeal had taken on her until she gave birth to her 34 week old daughter with a blood disorder. They had to go to the NICU, once again, the trauma from both births colliding. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder years before finally receiving the post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
CASE EXAMPLE #2:
23 weeks pregnant, Andrea was on vacation in Minnesota when her contractions started. Once at the nearest hospital, she was so dilated that her baby’s foot was visible just by vaginal exam. She was then airlifted to the nearest hospital with a NICU. Andrea remembers barely being able to breathe as the lakes, cityscapes, and countryside flew by. Her son was born bruised, small, battered, foot-first, and not breathing. This traumatic birth and the following 93 day stay in the NICU left a firm impression, leaving Andrea with a fear of heights and flashbacks every time she hears the sounds of helicopters. It was two years before she was diagnosed with PTSD and late-onset postpartum depression.
What Can We Do to Help?
Information given during an Interview with Dr. B, Neonatologist and Head of the NICU at Memorial Health Hospital
Peer to Peer Mentoring: This is a tactic that takes place between a person who has lived through a specific experience and a person who is new to that experience. In this case, we could have a mentor who went through a similar situation come and talk with the parents who are going through it right now. This would be so helpful because it would remind the parents that they are not alone and it would give them someone to talk to who knows exactly what they are experiencing.
Hand to Hold: This program helps families before, during, and after their stay in the NICU. They provide many resources to help the whole family but the main one is one-on-one mentoring from someone who has been in the same or a similar situation.
Other resources: Dr. B also mentioned that utilizing either self help books or podcasts would be a great plan. At the moment, he is listening to, and recommends the podcast “NICU Now”. This podcast goes into depth on PTSD in parents with babies in the NICU. These books, podcasts, or support groups show the parents that they are not alone and that they are doing everything they can for their babies. Dr. Buckler also spoke of arts and crafts. He said that doing arts and crafts (ie: beaded bracelets or necklaces) to remind the parents of all of the positive memories they are making with their baby during their stay in the NICU.
Questions for Discussion
- Have you or anyone in your family ever suffered from PTSD after having a baby in the NICU?
- Do you have any more ideas for how we can help these parents in need?
Please feel free to respond and start a discussion in the comments!